An Eye-Opening Look at How Many Conflict Photos Are Staged

Here’s a fascinating video in which Italian photographer Ruben Salvadori demonstrates how dishonest many conflict photographs are. Salvadori spent a significant amount of time in East Jerusalem, studying the role photojournalists play in what the world sees. By turning his camera on the photographers themselves, he shows how photojournalists often influence the events they’re supposed to document objectively, and how photographers are often pushed to seek and create drama even in situations that lack it.

You might start looking at conflict photos in the news a lot differently after watching this.

(via ISO1200)

  • Vincent de Groot

    the reality is hard…

  • john moyer

    this is what bad photographers do … they can’t be dignified with the title “photojournalist”

  • Ranger 9

    Interesting, but not surprising. I live near an air base which is a frequent target of disarmament protestors. Several years ago a local TV cameraman broke the “unwritten rules” and videoed not just the protest, but the preparations beforehand. We saw the guard sergeant and the protest organizer politely discussing how the event would be conducted; the sergeant explaining to the protestors what they should do if they wished to be arrested, and what to do if they merely wanted to demonstrate; guards and organizers agreeing that elderly protestors and children should go first, so they could get out of the cold sooner; even guards suggesting to protestors’ friends the best places to stand to get a good picture or video with the base’s sign in the background. Eye-opening and heartwarming, in a way, but seldom seen.

  • tatyana skymyrka

    only goes to show how difficult it is to maintain true integrity and ethical conduct in a field.  after all, don’t blame the photog or the editor, it’s all about the audience really.

  • John Armstrong-Millar

    Having grown up in Belfast in the 70’s I can say that at least 80% of “events” photographed were either staged or put on for the cameras..

  • Matteo Domenico

    This is one fo the first time maybe in the last 5 year that I, as an Italian citizen, can feel proud of one of my compatriot.

    Great job Salvadori, great job!

  • Connergo

    Iwo Jima was also staged…..just sayin’

  • Brian Colt

    Salvadori brings up some very interesting concepts in his presentation. First, we see that some the shots to be published as photojournalism are indeed staged. Can we blame the photographers, or the editors? Both are partially to blame certainly, but they have to earn a living, so they produce images that will sell. From the marketability aspect this is no different than a stock photographer designing shots for sale on the open market. Ethically, however, this practice is muddled at best. And that brings up the second point which stuck with me from Salvadori’s presentation – you can rarely document an event without changing it in some way. The presence of cameras changes behavior, which can in turn change the outcome of the event itself.

  • patrick

    photo journalists have a word for this: goat fuck

  • Robin Lawless

    @connergo …fyi Iwo Jima was NOT stage. This from the mouth of Joe Rosenthal the photographer. Check your facts …just sayin’

  • Jules Mattsson

    Interesting but I think petapixel are being way over-dramatic by describing it as staging photos. Sure there is a lot of editorial pressure to deliver dramatic pictures from dull situations and that can become unethical like in several cases in this video. However, nothing looks to me like it’s been staged and several of the cases in this video hardly look unethical to me, showing a photo then the photographer taking it does not a staging make…

  • Charles Mason

    i think it depends on what your definition of “staged” is. i would say if the subjects in the photo are doing something they wouldn’t have been doing if you weren’t taking a picture of them, then it’s a “staged” photo

  • Rob Leonardo

    A very disappointing title for this on PetaPixel blog; actually practices in the very issue of ethical mislead that the journalist, Mr. Salvadori is trying to get  ask us to be aware of.   

    From now on I will be using this all in my Photojournalism & Ethics Class for every semester!

  • JP

    How are these photogs staging photos? They are not manipulating or influencing any of the subjects. And that one photographer photographed those two soldiers with the shields at a low angle, so what? He was trying to make a bland, ordinary scene more esthetically pleasing. 

  • Anonymous


    But that definition is so broad as to be useless.  The presence of reporters or outsiders largely changes the dynamic of any gathering.

    All protests, demonstrations, press conferences… none of that happens unless there’s press there to cover it, because it’s all about getting one side or another out to talk about it.  Look at the noise just the last couple of weeks over the lack of MSM coverage of the “Occupy[fitb]” protests.  It’s how people and groups that don’t have their own networks find a voice to the rest of the world.

  • Anonymous

    Google Pallywood if you want to see an extreme example of this.

  • Clint

    JP wrote: “They are not manipulating or influencing any of the subjects.”

    I think one of the points of his presentation was that just by the photographer’s presence, they are influencing the situation whether they like it or not.  One of the stated goals of his presentation was to cause photographers to think more about how they are influencing the situations that they are involved in and recording.

  • Phil Fot

    protestors are rarely silent and gratified merely by a selfless, anonymous act of protest. Without cameras and media attention, protesting is not very appealing.

  • Nickyboynewton

    I see the issue here with the assumption that photography can indeed be a reflection of reality.  When an image is framed and removed from context and considered as documentary, the line can’t be drawn as to which image was accurate or true.  Sure instances can arise when a photograph documented the actual happening of an event like on 9/11, but every image is edited by the recorder.  Before photography, images created at the hands of artists like Goya, Picasso, or Jacques Callot were considered representations of atrocities, though they really only reflected a perception dictated by the image makers.  The desired portrayal and effect on viewers is something left to the image which is more or less effective based on the skill of the image maker.  People are merely discomforted when the romanticized movie-version of photo journalism is not shown to be true in the real world.  What can we say about the rest of our news?  It’s as altered and separate from reality as a staged photo.  

  • Anonymous

    I’m shocked, shocked.

  • Something

    Technically it was reenacted, not staged.

  • Phil G.

    Pallywood gives a great example of how things are not what they seem and in those instances, most definitely staged/acted out.

  • Anonymous
  • jbov

    How so?

  • Raving L

    Almost all people will act differently if they know they are being recorded on camera. Unless all photographers are specific event are unseen there will be some level of “staging”.

    That the photographers, and other parts of the media business, create “truth” is just a result of that the consumer wants those pictures.

  • David Carroll

    The image we saw was not staged, in fact there was only one photo of the image we all know from one camera man.  That camera man showed up late and missed the staged raising of the flag that was much smaller.  He showed up when a group of soldiers was trying to heave a much larger flag into position.

    Also that was a live battlefield at the time, and the actual pose for the photo was done after the picture of the flag raising with all the guys smiling for the camera.

  • Anonymous

    Does your weekly magazine, say, come with a guide as to who is and who is not a bad photographer?

  • trans

    Oh, I see. Some kid seeks out pre-planed rock throwing protests, takes pictures of the people taking pictures and thus concludes that most if not all conflict pictures are illegitimate. Because?

    If that’s the criteria for illegitimacy than just about every protest that ever occurred would be suspect. Sorry black folk, you can’t be free anymore b/c photographers took choreographed photos at your marches. Women, your right to vote has been repealed. Sorry, but you must have known you were pulling the wool over our eyes when you invited those newspaper men. Oh and don’t get me started on Vietnam anit-war protesters! Those people are the worst! I say shoot them all, but be sure not bring any cameras b/c then they might not actually be dead.

  • The Calligrapher

    Well, you see, while it is a well-known fact Iwo Jima image was staged, it is still strictly prohibited to mention this fact in USA. Not a good idea if you care about your own well-being and the well-being of your family members.

    The post-WWII US population was brought up getting rounded up every morning at gunpoint, forced on their knees and required to chant that the famous Soviet “Flag over Reichstag” photo was “staged”. That’s the only thing that mattered to them and that’s the only thing that defined their very existence and gave their lives any meaning. They were born and raised for one and only one purpose: to get together every morning and, swaying back and forth, mindlessly and repeatedly chant that the “Flag over Reichstag” photo was staged. Everyone who dared to mention that the Iwo Jima was staged as well quetly “disappeared” by the next morning never to be seen again.

    Under these circumstances, it is not so difficult to understand that any mentions of the fakeness of Iwo Jima photo will be met with denial and all-encompassing primal fear. Don’t torture the poor Americans by mentioning it here. They have been tortured enough.

  • Anonymous

    If the scene is a couple riot police standing on a sidewalk talking… that’s one story. 

    Riot police holding back a pushing throng of protesters… quite different. 

    The photo looks like the police are being aggressive and pushing into the crowd. Except there is no crowd.  It’s essentially staged but passed off as journalism.   You might as well hire actors and dress them up. 

  • Belzar Zefal

    There’s film footage of it being raised. There was a mistaken claim that it was staged by some one who later retracted his claim.

  • Sure Not Sure

    All of my best “protest” photos were taken with a 300mm lens from half a block away. Long before the subjects knew I was there.

    Much more honest that way.

  • Mark999

    Oh yeah, blame it on the audience…  so the audience asked you to take dramatic photographs even if the situation is not so dramatic?

    At least be a little creative when coming up with excuses (and dramatic photographs).

  • Mark999

    It is bad enough the photographers take over the weddings; now they are taking over world conflicts as well?

  • Bill Cox

    If photographing the reality as a passive observer is not so important why not generate these scenes through Computer Graphics and be done with it.  I’m sure you can get much better effects that way and it’ll be much cheaper.

    Wonder if photojournalists fancy that idea?

  • tatyana skymyrka

    I think that your cynicism might be slightly misdirected.  It is hardly an excuse, nor there needs to be one. Mundane documentary images along with mundane headlines don’t sell news print or generate large volume web traffic.  “Educated reader” accounts for very small profitable margin nowadays.  Sad, but true.

  • Anonymous

    The facts of the flag raising on Iwo Jima are well documented from numerous individuals who where there. I’m not sure I understand why so many people keep saying it was staged. It clearly was not. This is the first time I’ve ever heard the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was staged, and I grew up in the cold war. What about the moon landing, Calligrapher? I suppose you have proof that was filmed in a secret studio in Burbank. 

  • David

    During the war with Lebanon they had the dude parading a dead baby all over the place.
    There’s been funerals where the deceased falls off the stretcher and gets back on.

  • Anonymous

    The studio, as I understand it, was just outside Mankato, Minnesota.  Weird, I know.

  • Mark Loundy

    Iwo was not “staged.”

  • Eob

    Sorry, folks, but all protests are staged. Why do you get shocked by staged photographs of staged events?

    I am not advocating, or even explaining, the legitimacy of staged photojournalism. But let’s just get a grip on reality, OK?

  • Geeb

    Strictly prohibited to mention this in the USA? What? Well being of your family? What universe are you from? I’m from the USA and can tell you that this is patently absurd.

  • Blah

    I’m sure he’s so sorry that he didn’t come up with a rigorous definition of what distinguishes a bad photographer from a good one, which must mean that there is no distinction, right?

    His comment is perfectly valid, and you have no point. You just like being a confrontational asshole.

  • Stephen Skok

    What’s with the wobblecam in this piece? To make it more edgy? More real?

  • Fcam

    I believe long before all this, it was about creativity and passion.  But sometimes when you’ve been doing the same thing for years, you try to look for shortcuts that makes your job easier, reduce the chances that you may get injured.  Every single time they go out, they wonder whether they are going to get shot and may not come back to their families. But they still have to do it because it is what pays their bills. You can’t help but admire people like Steve McCurry for what he has done.

  • Anonymous

    Moyer’s implied definition of a “photojournalist” is very clear from the context of the article and I have no issue with it. The point was that there is no way for a viewer to distinguish between the good and bad when confronted with an image in the press. Salvadori presents the case that staged photos are the norm so simply dropping the tag “photojournalist” does not change what the end user sees. The profession, not the label, must change.

    Sorry the confusion caused you undue stress.

  • Anonymous

    Ethically, staged photos may influence people halfway across the world to drop bombs on people or may lead people to doubt the veracity of authentic photographs.

  • Tim W. Glass

    Important conversation, but much of this is very well documented.  What always surprises me is that when discussing photojournalists and the construction of social reality (Searle) the conversation invariably turns to conflict photojournalism.  Absent from the conversation (usually) is the effect of including or excluding certain subjects or aspects of society in daily local news coverage.  I plan to soon blog about the daily local front page images and their effect on local constructs of social reality.

  • Matthew Simmons

    I think you get more honest images from cellphones and twitter then you ever get from paid journalists. It’s impossible for one journalist to compete with the news gathering ability of a million cell phone cameras. There will always be at least one cellphone at the scene of any incident and only rarely a professional journalist. 

    I learned early on that if you want a good photo you have to go where the journalists aren’t. That produces honest photos but rarely paychecks. 

    The real issue here is that these “journalists” have families to feed and hunger will always trump integrity. 

  • Steven Davis

    I like this because you usual don’t see this being put on display away from photography classes epically history of photography. It was funny that my photojournalism class barley touched on this. I always liked doing journalism projects and tried to be bias but noticed when I was sent to assigned events or locations my presence there with my press pass would make people act different as soon as my camera came to my eye.